James Fitzsimons can trace the entire path he took from arriving at Stirling as a “very, very shy” young first year, to the point he decided to run for one of the most important jobs in the Union sabbatical team: Vice President Communities – essentially the head of the university’s clubs, societies, and student volunteers.
He proves this to me as we talk at a table beside a phone box in Underground, his excitement clear as he follows the story. In his first weeks of university, a young James decided to take a leap of faith, and join a few societies. One of those societies was Air3, Stirling’s student radio station.
“I joined Air3 with a couple of my mates, just doing stupid, stupid stuff on the air, it was so funny. They eventually dropped out, but I was hooked.
“I never even considered joining any committee, but then an opportunity arose, and I went, why not? So I became head of production. And then the station manager at the time stepped down and this opportunity presented itself to me, and I’m like, well, why not? I think I could do this. So I became station manager. And now I’m head of a club, something I never thought I would be in any position to do.”
James has now been station manager for Air3 for about six months, and he says that the initial decision to join the society has changed his life. He went from having no idea what would follow university to planning a career in radio broadcasting. And now he has ambitions to make sure everyone at the University of Stirling gets that same opportunity.
He thinks it’s awful that so many students go their full four years at Stirling “without even dipping their toes into the societies pool”, and one of his main promises in his manifesto is to increase student engagement of clubs and societies. But how does he plan to engage students whose only interaction with the university’s clubs is reading the wall opposite Nisa? Here’s one idea:
“We’ve got the societies fair, which is brilliant, but for people who don’t really integrate themselves much in the clubs and societies pool, walking through the atrium is quite daunting.
“So I was thinking of creating a second one, where it’s an event in a smaller area, and you’re not feeling like all eyes are on you. Make it a kind of party.”
But some folk might still feel a bit intimidated… how could they be loosened up?
“I’ve got a friend who’s a fourth year student, and she isn’t part of any clubs and socs. I think she’d be much more willing to go to something in Venue, and this isn’t necessarily a thing that should happen, but maybe the bar’s open so they’re a little bit more…”
He cuts himself off quickly, before adding: “I don’t encourage alcoholism!”
James doesn’t have much of the verbal polish of a professional politician. He doesn’t care too much about a sleek image, either – his two campaign slogans are ‘He’s not so bad…’ and ‘I’m better at leading than I am at slogans’. This shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of ideas or enthusiasm, though.
When I ask him what he considers to be his most vital policy, he struggles: “See, there’s so many… I was filming my campaign video the other night, and I realised just quite how passionate I was about so many different things. And, obviously I thought they were all good ideas, that’s why I put them down…”
Eventually, he settles on one: his mental health initiative. As promised, you can see the passion in his face as he launches into a rant against the university’s “woefully inadequate” mental health services.
“Many students are in a particularly vulnerable state. They’re transitioning from secondary school to living on their own, meeting all these new people, basically being thrown in at the deep end. They suffer from things like stress, social anxiety, depression.
“It’s a very formative period for a lot of people. They’re going through questions of sexual identity, how they identify gender-wise. And so I think that at the moment, our facilities aren’t quite what they should be.”
He mentions figures of one counsellor per 6000 students – a statistic that Brig is currently trying to independently verify – and he talks about the moment when he “lost shit, on the air” after hearing that fellow candidate Alasdair Ibbotson was told to ‘get over it’ by a counsellor who no longer works at the university.
“That’s such a horrible, demoralising thing to hear. So I’m going to be pushing for more support, and a better support system for everyone.”
James is able to speak at length about any of the policies I throw at him. He has an idea for improving career opportunities for club members (employability is one of the main points in the VP Communities remit) which involves contacting “as many people in the industry as I could possibly get my hands on, and saying, would you be willing to come down and talk to the club, show the process of how their career would work.”
And if that sounds a bit like taking on a role that should really be left to each individual club’s president, he assures me it’s not.
“I’m just there to facilitate them and open as many doors as possible. Whatever door they decide to walk through is completely up to them. I’m not here to step on anybody’s toes, I’m just here to say, this is available, let me help you.”
One of the more eye-catching policies in James’s manifesto is lowering the number of people needed to start a club from ten to anywhere between five and seven. Again, he has a nice long spiel about why this is necessary. Here’s most of it:
“There’s a lot of people out there who might have some niche interests, and maybe their immediate friend group don’t all share that same interest. So, rather than having to find nine other strangers, maybe they only need to find four or five more.
“This niche interest can eventually lead to building their own little network of people to have fun, and talk with. And then maybe, they do some great work with that new club, that club gets more members, and more members, and more members, and they’re engaging in so much more stuff, and this once niche interest is now something that everyone loves.
“It can be very, very difficult to go through four years of university without somebody to be a support network, without somebody who shares the same interests. Maybe you’re afraid to bring it up to people because they might think it’s a bit weird, or too niche.
“So in doing this, it builds confidence in people, and it makes them feel like they’re safe and secure.”
Now, I ask him my favourite question – which of your opponents’ promises will you nab if you are elected? To my surprise, James has an instant answer to this as well. Maybe his four years of psychology has taught him to read minds…
“I’d love to carry through Jamie’s idea of VP Tea (that’s Jamie Grant). Maybe it’s not necessarily feasible on the level he’s wanting to do, but he wants to get in physical contact with people, have a coffee, in clubs and societies with the presidents and all. Just, see how they’re going.
“So, I think VP Tea’s a great idea. Scott’s got a lot of great facts behind him (Scott Mackay, who has since dropped out of the race). He wants to waive the fee for post-graduates. At the minute, the post-graduate pool of people who are in clubs and socs is quite small, but that kind of just bolsters the point.
“I think for post-graduates it should, at the very least, be a reduced fee, if it’s not already, and I like the idea of waiving it entirely.”
There’s nothing I can say to this guy to make him hesitate. It’s getting embarrassing for me. So, I ask him the kicker, the killer final question: what are you planning for your first 100 days?
“I’d say the first ten days is going to be figuring it all out. I’m not going to go in there and immediately say, ‘I know how this works, I’ve got this, get away from me!’ I will be using the resources available to me.
“My first 100 days will be setting up meetings with clubs and societies presidents, or at least email chains, to say, ‘this is what I want to do, are you interested? I’m going to be networking for you’.
“Depending on the interest, if they say yes, if one club or society says yes, great. I go, and I put all my effort into that. And if two people say it, I split between them and so on and so forth.
“My first 100 days will definitely be trying to accomplish as many of my promises as possible, or at least starting something that could be then built upon in later months in the following year.”
So there’s James Fitzsimons: dry, approachable, amiable, and possessing a frightening ability to know the answer before you’ve started asking the question.
If you’d like to ask James or any of the other candidates in this election your own questions, you’ve got a couple of opportunities: Union Hustings is at midday on March 7, which is the precise time this article is published, so if you want to go you’d better run to the Atrium now. Alt Hustings, the more fun and more inebriated version, is on Thursday March 9 at 6pm, in Venue.
Voting opens at 9am on Monday, March 13, and closes at 6.15pm the next day. And of course, Brig will be the first to give you the results on the day, so keep an eye out.